Colombian trade unionists still endangered

The blog at the website of the American labor federation AFL-CIO reports on a visit of US labor leaders to Colombia, where they met with trade unionists and government officials, including President Alvaro Uribe.

Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a union activist. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 78 trade unionists were murdered in the country in 2006– a decline from previous years. Many of the murders have been carried out by rightwing paramilitary groups, and there has been virtually no government action against those involved.

Uribe has been trying to win support from the US labor movement for a US-Colombian free trade agreement. The AFL-CIO opposes the agreement until Colombia makes serious progress in curbing the threats to labor activists in the country. According to one of the visiting labor officials, Dan Kovalik of the United Steelworkers:

Our meeting with President Uribe took a chilling turn when I raised our collective concern about the pervasive anti-union culture in the military, companies and even the government in Colombia—a culture which labels those workers attempting to organize and exercise their union rights as “guerrillas” or “terrorists.” In a country where the Colombian military, along with right-wing paramilitaries aligned with the military, are at war with the guerrillas, such labels target those workers for assassination.

As an example of anti-union stigmatization, I related to Uribe a conversation I had with a colonel of the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade shortly after this brigade shot and killed three trade union leaders near Saravena in August 2004. Colonel Medina of the 18th Brigade told me at that time that he knew he was required as an army officer to protect trade unionists as he would all citizens. However, he claimed that many unionists were in fact guerrillas—a claim which is untrue but which makes unionists fair game for attacks by the military.

In response, Uribe said to me that he meets with unionists every month and that many of them have good hearts. Like the colonel, however, he followed up this statement with a pregnant “but.” To wit, he said that it was his experience as a student (presumably decades ago) that a tactic of the guerrillas was to infiltrate the union movement, the student movement and the press.

Then, Uribe went on to claim that the three unionists killed near Saravena in 2004 were in fact guerrillas linked to the guerrilla group ELN. I disagreed with the president, pointing out that his own attorney general had concluded, after investigation, that this claim was not true, and that the 18th Brigade had actually planted weapons on the unionists after the fact to make it look like they were insurgents killed in a gunbattle. In response, Uribe said he had gone to Saravena personally and that members of the community had assured him the three killed were in fact members of the ELN.

So, based on hearsay, without any proof, and in defiance of his own attorney general’s conclusions, the president clings to the contention that these individuals were “terrorists.”

It should come as no surprise either that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also accused the so-called revolutionaries of the FARC guerilla movement of murder and other human rights abuses against trade unionists.

Under such conditions, despite laws protecting trade union activity, it’s no surprise that less than one percent of Colombia’s workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements.